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Publication numberUS5822738 A
Publication typeGrant
Application numberUS 08/562,268
Publication date13 Oct 1998
Filing date22 Nov 1995
Priority date22 Nov 1995
Fee statusPaid
Also published asDE69637667D1, EP0775988A2, EP0775988A3, EP0775988B1, US6240403, US6938018, US20010020234
Publication number08562268, 562268, US 5822738 A, US 5822738A, US-A-5822738, US5822738 A, US5822738A
InventorsKeith B. Robertson, Chandrakant J. Shah
Original AssigneeF.M.E. Corporation
Export CitationBiBTeX, EndNote, RefMan
External Links: USPTO, USPTO Assignment, Espacenet
Method and apparatus for a modular postage accounting system
US 5822738 A
Abstract
Apparatus and method for a modular postage accounting system. An open system metering device of the present invention includes a general purpose computer, a digital printer and a secure metering device (SMD). The SMD performs the accounting functions of a postage meter and generates encrypted postage indicia data for transmission by the computer to the digital printer and subsequent printing on a mailpiece by the digital printer. Postage credit data can be entered into the SMD using a computerized meter resetting system just as it is in a conventional postage meter.
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Claims(16)
What is claimed is:
1. A modular postage accounting system, comprising:
secure metering means for securely storing postage accounting information and capable of generating a secure postage indicium and accounting for the generation of said secure postage indicium, wherein said secure postage indicium comprises encoded postage information subject to verification and at least one component of said secure metering means is housed in a physically secure housing, said physically secure housing being capable of preventing access to said at least one component;
communication means for communicating with other computing means; and
computing means, coupled to said secure metering means and coupled to said communication means, for controlling and retrieving postage information stored in said secure metering means and for conveying postage information to and from said other computing means using said communication means, said computing means being capable of causing said metering means to generate said secure postage indicium.
2. A modular postage accounting system, comprising:
secure metering means for securely storing postage accounting information and capable of generating a secure postage indicium and accounting for the generation of said secure postage indicium, wherein at least one component of said secure metering means is housed in a physically secure housing, said physically secure housing being capable of preventing access to said at least one component;
printing means for printing said secure postage indicium and other information, wherein said secure postage indicium includes encoded postage information subject to verification, and obviates a need for said printing means to provide the physical security of said physically secure housing;
computing means, coupled to said printing means and coupled to said secure metering means, for receiving postage information from and controlling said secure metering means and for causing said printing means to print said secure postage indicium, said computing means being capable of causing said metering means to generate said secure postage indicium; and
communication means, coupled to said computing means, for allowing said computing means to send and receive postage information to and from other computers.
3. A modular postage accounting system, comprising:
a computer, having a first I/O port, a second I/O port and a third I/O port;
a printer, having a first printer port, said first printer port connected to said first I/O port, said printer being capable of printing a secure postage indicium and other information from said computer;
a modem, having a first modem port and a second modem port, said first modem port capable of being connected to a telephone line and said second modem port connected to said second I/O port for communicating postage information; and
a secure metering device capable of generating said secure postage indicium and accounting for the generation of said secure postage indicium, having a first communications port connected to said third I/O port for communicating postage information between said secure metering device and said computer, wherein at least one component of said secure metering device is housed in a physically secure housing, said physically secure housing being capable of preventing access to said at least one component, and wherein said secure postage indicium includes encoded postage information subject to verification and obviates a need for said printer to provide the physical security of said physically secure housing.
4. The apparatus of claim 3, further comprising software residing on said computer for controlling said printer, said modem and said secure metering device, wherein said software is capable of causing said secure metering device to generate said secure postage indicium, causing said secure metering device to communicate said secure postage indicium to said computer, causing said computer to communicate said secure postage indicium to said printer, and causing said printer to print said secure postage indicium.
5. The apparatus of claim 3, wherein said secure metering device comprises:
a first storage device and a second storage device capable of redundantly and securely storing postage information, wherein said first storage device serves as said at least one component;
a secure communication unit for securely communicating with said computer; and
a processor, coupled to said first and said second storage devices and coupled to said secure communication unit, for controlling said first and said second storage devices and transferring postage information from said first and said second storage devices to said secure communication unit.
6. The apparatus of claim 3, wherein said secure metering device comprises:
a first battery augmented memory unit for storing postage information, wherein said first battery augmented memory unit serves as said at least one component;
a second battery augmented memory unit for storing postage information;
a memory controller, coupled to said first battery augmented memory unit and said second battery augmented memory unit;
a microprocessor, coupled to said memory controller, for updating postage information stored in said first battery augmented memory unit and said second battery augmented memory unit, and communicating the information held in said first battery augmented memory unit and said second battery augmented memory unit;
a memory unit, coupled to said microprocessor, for storing information required by said microprocessor; and a secure communications port, coupled to said microprocessor and coupled to said memory controller, for allowing the microprocessor to securely communicate with said computer and for allowing said computer to access said first battery augmented memory unit and said second battery augmented memory unit via said memory controller.
7. The apparatus of claim 5, further comprising:
a first automated reading means for reading human-readable information from said secure postage indicium;
a second automated reading means for reading said encoded postage information from said secure postage indicium; and
a computing means, coupled to said first automated reading means and coupled to said second automated reading means, for comparing said human-readable information and said encoded postage information, to determine the authenticity of said secure postage indicium.
8. The apparatus of claim 6, further comprising:
a first automated reading means for reading human-readable information from said secure postage indicium;
a second automated reading means for reading said encoded postage information from said secure postage indicium; and
a computing means, coupled to said first automated reading means and coupled to said second automated reading means, for comparing said human-readable information and said encrypted information, to determine the authenticity of said secure postage indicium.
9. A modular postage accounting system, comprising:
a computer, having an input/output port and a network port, said network port connected to a network for communicating postage information and secure postage indicia to other computers on said network; and
a secure metering device capable of generating said secure postage indicia and accounting for the generation of said secure postage indicium, having a first communications port connected to said input/output port for communicating said secure postage indicia, postage information and control signals between said secure metering device and said computer, wherein at least one component of said secure metering device is housed in a physically secure housing, said physically secure housing capable of preventing access to said at least one component and said secure postage indicium includes encoded information subject to verification.
10. A modular postage accounting system, comprising:
a secure metering device capable of generating a secure postage indicium, wherein said secure metering device securely stores postage accounting information and at least one component of said secure metering device is housed in a physically secure housing, said physically secure housing being capable of preventing access to said at least one component;
a printer, said printer capable of printing said secure postage indicium, wherein said secure postage indicium includes encoded postage information subject to verification and obviates a need for said printer to provide the physical security of said physically secure housing;
a computer, coupled to said secure metering device and said printer, said computer controlling said secure metering device and retrieving postage information stored in said secure metering device, said computer capable of conveying postage information to and from other computers using said communications unit and causing said printer to print said secure postage indicium; and
a communications unit, coupled to said computer, said communications unit allowing said computer to send and receive postage information to and from other computers.
11. The apparatus of claim 10, wherein said printer is capable of printing information in addition to said secure postage indicium.
12. The apparatus of claim 10, further comprising software residing on said computer for controlling said secure metering device, said printer and said communications unit, wherein said software is capable of causing said secure metering device to generate said secure postage indicium, causing said secure metering device to communicate said secure postage indicium to said computer, causing said computer to communicate said secure postage indicium to said printer, and causing said printer to print said secure postage indicium.
13. The apparatus of claim 10, wherein said secure metering device comprises:
a first storage device and a second storage device capable of redundantly and securely storing postage information;
a secure communication unit for securely communicating with said computer; and
a processor, coupled to said first and said second storage devices and coupled to said secure communication unit, for controlling said first and said second storage devices and transferring postage information from said first and said second storage devices to said secure communication unit.
14. The apparatus of claim 13, further comprising:
a first automated reading means for reading human-readable information from said secure postage indicium;
a second automated reading means for reading said encoded postage information from said secure postage indicium; and
a computing means, coupled to said first automated reading means and coupled to said second automated reading means, for comparing said human-readable information and said encoded postage information, to determine the authenticity of said secure postage indicium.
15. The apparatus of claim 10, wherein said secure metering device comprises:
a first battery augmented memory unit for storing postage information, wherein said first battery augmented memory unit serves as said at least one component;
a second battery augmented memory unit for storing postage information;
a memory controller, coupled to said first battery augmented memory unit and said second battery augmented memory unit;
a microprocessor, coupled to said memory controller, for updating postage information stored in said first battery augmented memory unit and said second battery augmented memory unit, and communicating the information held in said first battery augmented memory unit and said second battery augmented memory unit;
a memory unit, coupled to said microprocessor, for storing information required by said microprocessor; and
a secure communications port, coupled to said microprocessor and coupled to said memory controller, for allowing the microprocessor to securely communicate with said computer and for allowing said computer to access said first battery augmented memory unit and said second battery augmented memory unit via said memory controller.
16. The apparatus of claim 15, further comprising:
a first automated reading means for reading human-readable information from said secure postage indicium;
a second automated reading means for reading encoded postage information from said secure postage indicium; and
a computing means, coupled to said first automated reading means and coupled to said second automated reading means, for comparing said human-readable information and said encoded postage information, to determine the authenticity of said secure postage indicium.
Description
DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENT

FIG. 1A is a diagram showing an MPAS 1 designed according to the present invention. MPAS 1 consists of three major components: a CMRS 105, a ZIP-code information system (ZCIS) 191 and an open system metering device (OSMD) 5. The first component, CMRS 105, is a system based on modem communications between a modern electronic postage meter (not shown) and a resetting station computer 120. Well known in the art, the operation of CMRS 105 is the subject of government standards and, while CMRS 105's interaction with OSMD 5 will be discussed later, the operation of CMRS 105 will not be treated in detail here. The second component, ZCIS 191, provides computer access to U.S. ZIP-codes and international postal codes. ZCIS 191 is a commercially-available system, with some 150 installations in the U.S. As such, the operation of ZCIS 191 will not be treated in detail either. However, the interaction between ZCIS 191 and OSMD 5 will also be discussed later. The final component, OSMD 5, performs all of the functions traditionally associated with conventional postage meters and may include a secure metering device (SMD) 10, a general purpose computer (GPC) 20, an electronic scale 40 and a digital printer 60. SMD 10 performs the accounting functions generally associated with the traditional postage meter. SMD 10 generates encrypted postage indicia for transmission by the computer to digital printer 60, where it is subsequently printed on a mailpiece (exemplified by a mailpiece 100).

According to the invention, FIG. 1A shows SMD 10 attached to GPC 20 via a secure communications link 30. Secure communications link 30 may be any mechanism for transferring information that is impervious to unauthorized interception, for example sending encrypted data over an RS-232C serial communications line, transmitting data by wireless techniques (with or without encryption), or by embedding SMD 10 in GPC 20. SMD 10 may be housed separately from GPC 20. As shown in FIG. 1B, a secure housing 11 is provided for SMD 10 to prevent tampering by unauthorized persons. Alternately, SMD 10, may also be housed within GPC 20 and communicate directly with a bus system 18. This communication may be encrypted, if desired. To provide added security on such configuration, encryption may be used on the software residing in GPC 20.

FIG. 1B is a simplified block diagram of GPC 20 in which the present invention may be embodied. In accordance with known practice, GPC 20 includes a processor 12 that communicates with a number of peripheral devices via bus subsystem 18. These peripheral devices typically include a memory subsystem 21, a user input facility 31, a display subsystem 24, output devices such as a printer 17, and a file storage system 13. Memory subsystem 21 may consist of a number of memory units, including a main random access memory (RAM) 22 and a read only memory (ROM) 23 in which fixed instructions may be stored. User input facility 31 typically includes a keyboard 32 and may further include a pointing device 33 (e.g., a mouse, trackball or the like) or other common input devices, such as other input devices(s) 34. Display subsystem 24 typically includes a display device 26 (e.g., a cathode ray tube (CRT) or similar device) coupled to display controller 25. File storage system 13 may include a hard disk 14, a floppy disk 15 or other storage media 16.

In this context, the term "bus subsystem" is used generically so as to include any mechanism for letting the various components of the system communicate with each other as intended. With the exception of the input devices and the display, the other components need not be at the same physical location. Thus, for example, portions of the file storage system could be connected via various local-area or wide-area network media, including telephone lines. Similarly, the input devices and display need not be at the same location as the processor, although it is anticipated that the present invention will most often be implemented in the context of general purpose computers and workstations.

Bus subsystem 18 is shown schematically as a single bus, but a typical system has a number of buses such as a local bus and one or more expansion buses (e.g., ADB, SCSI, ISA, EISA, MCA, NuBus, or PCI), as well as serial and parallel ports. Network connections are usually established through a device such as a network adapter on one of these expansion buses or a modem on a serial port. The computer system may be a desktop system or a portable system, or may be a larger "mainframe" system.

As FIG. 1A indicates, a communications line 90 (e.g., a parallel printer line) connects GPC 20 to digital printer 60 (preferably a laser-printer). This facilitates the printing of postage indicia on labels and envelopes (exemplified here by mailpiece 100), optionally, electronic scale 40 may be attached to GPC 20 (via a communications line 70). A communications line 80 (e.g., an RS-232C serial communications line) also connects GPC 20 to a communications interface device 50 (e.g., a modem). Communications interface device 50 provides access to computerized meter resetting system (CMRS) 105 via a communications medium 110. Resetting station computer 120 communicates postage information (for example, resetting information or auditing information) with GPC 20 and SMD 10 via a communications interface device 130 connected to communications medium 110 and to resetting station computer 120 via a communications line 140. Optionally, GPC 20 and SMD 10 may communicate with ZCIS computer 150. ZCIS computer 150 is connected to communications medium 110 via a communications line 170 and a communications interface device 160. Also connected to ZCIS computer 150 via a communications line 190 is a CD-ROM device 180, which holds U.S. ZIP-code and international postal code information.

As is well known in the art, a system such as this requires operating software (not shown). Software resident on GPC 20 enables GPC 20 to communicate with CMRS 105, SMD 10, digital printer 60 and, optionally, electronic scale 40. Software with these capabilities is commercially available, and so will not be described in detail herein. The protocol used by CMRS 105 (which supports communication between SMD 10, GPC 20 and CMRS 105) is also well-known, as it is the subject of a U.S. government standard. Software resident on SMD 10 is also well-known and is similar to that disclosed in U.S. Pat. No. 4,484,307, by Quatse et al., the disclosure of which is incorporated herein by reference.

Communication between GPC 20 and SMD 10 is bi-directional. GPC 20 sends control commands and information requests to SMD 10. SMD 10, in return, may send human-readable data (in response to information requests), postage indicia (in response to postage requests and which are encrypted) or both. For example, postage is requested by a user (not shown) by the user's entering postage information into GPC 20. GPC 20 sends this information, together with mail class/service, any other values required (e.g., insurance) and the destination ZIP-code to SMD 20. Any failure in this communication prevents further issuance of postage by SMD 10. In turn, SMD 10 responds by generating a secure (via encryption) postage indicia file together with a license number and transmitting that information to GPC 20. GPC 20 then takes this information and constructs a postage indicia print file including a two-dimensional code, graphical information and human-readable data. The postage indicia print file, together with optional information (such as address information, ZIP-code barcoding and any user-defined information) is transmitted to printer 60 for printing.

Printer 60 then imprints the postage indicium and other information onto an envelope (mailpiece 100), a label (not shown) or other means of affixation of postage. Examples of postage indicia are shown in FIGS. 2A-2C. As shown in FIG. 3 (an enlargement of FIG. 2A), a postage indicium 195 may include such features as a graphic 196, human-readable postage information 197 and encoded postage information 198. As shown in FIGS. 2A-2C, encoded postage information 198 may be included inside or outside postage indicium 195, or omitted entirely. Tables 1 and 2 include listings of other communications which can occur between GPC 20 and SMD 10.

              TABLE 1______________________________________           2Communications Between GPC and SMD DESCRIP-ITEM  TION      FUNCTION  APPROACH______________________________________1     SERVICES:1.1   Install   To reset the                     User follows instructions to           lock on the                     connect the SMD via the PC system           SMD which to the Neopost remote centre.           is set by the                     Once the status is checked a code           factory   is transmitted to unlock the SMD           before    for use. Successful unlock is           shipping. confirmed. A way to ensure the                     correct install location may also                     be required.1.2   Reset Postage           To charge Direct connect version of POC.           the SMD   Read and check registers and make           with a new                     and confirm transaction. Any           postage   amount limitations eg           payment.  min/max/increments will be                     controlled by the POC centre.1.3   Set Reset To block the                     After receipt of a sequence of 16 Code Lock SMD in the                     wrong postage payment reset codes           event of an                     the SMD will lock-out. A message           attempted is sent to the user with           misuse.   instructions.1.4   Unlock Code           To reset the                     The user must contact the Neopost           SMD       POC enquiry line. If a reset is           lock-out  to be initiated the register           condition.                     status is validated and a reset                     code is issued and the unlock                     action confirmed.1.5   Remote    To read the                     In the event of a detectable fault Diagnostics           contents of                     which could put accountability at Status    the fault risk the SMD is blocked and the           register. fault is recorded. On-line the                     Neopost support service will be                     able to read the fault register.1.6   Reset Soft           To reset a                     In the event that accountability Fault     soft fault                     is not compromised and following           which     verification of data a code can be           unblocks  issued to reset the fault flag.           the SMD.  The resetting of the flag is                     confirmed. If the fault proves to                     be permanent the SMD must be                     returned for service or                     replacement.1.7   Reconfigure           To recon- A read confirmation is made           figure certain                     followed by a code which changes           parameters                     the status of variant registers.           in the SMD                     The reconfiguration action must be           which have                     verified before the SMD is           been      released again for use.           designed into                     It should be possible to           the system.                     configure:                     a) decimal or fraction                     b) change inspection period in                     months from 3 to 12, for example,                     and                     c) correct any permissible data                     errors.1.8   Withdraw  To set the                     A read confirmation is made           displayed followed by a code which locks the           descending                     SMD from use. In this condition           register to                     the SMD when read will show the           zero and  descending register as zero but           block the the original contents of the           SMD from  descending register is retained           use.      for later verification, if                     required by a service centre.2     OPERA- TIONS:2.1   User Access           To provide a                     The PIN will be 4 digits and based PIN       user PIN to                     on an algorithm derived from the           safeguard serial #. For the SMD the PIN is           use of the                     fixed and is required each time           postage   the SMD is switched on. The PC           function. gives the user the option to enter                     a PIN or not as well as the                     possibility to change the PIN.                     This flexibility is managed in the                     PC. Service access to the SMD                     information is always possible via                     the SMD service mode and unique                     access code.2.2   Zero test To enable This can be a menu selection via imprint   the user or                     the PC. Zero test prints will not           service to                     register on the USPS cycle           test the  counter. It is acceptable for the           system with                     PC to add the word "TEST"           a zero value                     diagonally across the print or in           postage   anther suitable format.           imprint; all           normal meter           functions           are active.2.3   Request   To enable This request can be initiated by a Postage   normal    user making a direct postage value           postage   entry or from a postage value           values to calculation with a scale or from a           be selected.                     look-up table (menu). The PC                     sends the postage value to the SMD                     together with the Mail                     class/service (complete with any                     values reqd. eg insurance) and the                     Destination ZIP + 4 + 2. It should be                     possible for the user to set up a                     print run for a batch of envelopes                     comprising the same postage value                     eg for a mailing. The user should                     be advised if there is                     insufficient credit to complete                     the run.2.4   Issue     To provide                     The SMD generates a secure indicia Postage   the PC with                     postage file and sends this to the           the indicia                     PC together with the license.           postage file.                     This communication must be secure                     and closed loop. Any failure in                     this communication cycle prevents                     further issue of postage together                     with a fault message to the user.                     The PC constructs the indicia                     print file comprising a 2D code,                     graphics and human readable data.                     The indicia print file together                     with a CASS address and ZIP + 4 + 2                     barcode and any user defined                     information is issued to the                     printer. Once the data is issued                     to the printer it is fixed; it                     cannot be changed by normal PC                     application software.2.5   Re-print  To allow up                     In the event of a printer Postage   to 3 total                     malfunction and the printer is           attempts to                     lost the user can try up to two           print an  more times. This function is           indicia (fixed                     managed by the PC since the SMD           state).   issues only one indicia for one                     recorded postage. The PC adds a                     "*" to the imprint and                     communicates the number of re-                     prints to the SMD.2.6   Date      To advance                     The user can select a forward date Advance   the date for                     only for printing post. The           processing                     postage date is managed by the           items for SMD. The user can request a           future    forward posting date up to 3 days           posting.  in advance.2.7   Fault     To advise In the event that a fault is Message   the user of                     detected by the SMD a fault code           a fault and                     is generated and, if possible,           to give   communicated to the PC.           appropriate                     Regardless, the PC displays a           instructions.                     fault message. The fault code is                     recorded in the SMD service                     history register. It is                     acceptable for the SMD to retain                     only the last 10 faults.3     INSPEC- TION:3.1   Advanced  To advise Whenever the system is switched on Inspection           the user of                     within one week of an inspection Flag      an upcoming                     date the user will be advised that Warning   inspection.                     a remote inspection is required by                     the required date; a message tells                     the user how to initiate an                     inspection. The date is                     controlled by the set inspection                     date in the PC. An inspection can                     be made at any time during this                     warning period.3.2   Inspection           To advise To display a permanent message on Reset     the user an                     the date of expiry that an           inspection                     inspection must be made this date           must be   otherwise the system will be           made by the                     locked until the inspection is           expiry date.                     completed.3.3   Inspection           To make an                     A remote communication is           inspection                     initiated by the PC with the           of the SMD.                     Inspection Centre. Provision                     shall be made for the Inspection                     Centre to be a different telephone                     number to the POC Direct Resetting                     Centre. All registers are                     transmitted as with a POC Direct                     Connect resetting plus usage                     statistics and number of reprints                     register. It is assumed that the                     inspection will have to be made                     separately to a normal remote                     postage payment resetting.                     However, if transmission time                     permits, all the information                     communicated during an inspection                     should also be included in each                     read sequence of the normal                     postage resetting transaction.3.4   No        To block the                     At midnight of the last date by Inspection           SMD in the                     which inspection is required, the After Time           event that an                     SMD is blocked and a user message Out (SMD  inspection is                     is displayed on the PC. The Blocked)  not made by                     message informs the user that an           the required                     inspection must be made before           date.     further postage can be dispensed.3.5   Inspection           To advise If an inspection fails to be Failure   the user in                     completed satisfactory for any           the event of                     reason the system should try to           a failure to                     reinitiate another inspection           complete the                     cycle. Up to 3 maximum attempts           inspection                     should be made before an error           satisfactory.                     message is displayed. An error                     code is also recorded. A wait                     message should be displayed to the                     user while the remote transmission                     is in operation. When the                     inspection is complete a user                     message will be displayed together                     with the next date an inspection                     is required.4     REPORTS:4.1   Status    To print a                     All user register information is Reports   report of all                     communicated, upon request, to the           user non  PC. The PC defines the report           secure    format. The report shall have a.           registers.                     title, date, license #, register                     values and system set-up eg                     postage range, last inspection                     date, low credit warning level,                     high value interlock level, etc.4.2   Postage Reset           To print a                     Upon request, the SMD communicates Statement statement of                     relevant information as listed in           new postage                     the example given in DTG/F1724           payment.  dated 25.10.95. The PC defines                     the report format. Additional                     information listed in F1724 is                     provided from the PC. It should                     be only possible to print the                     statement immediately after a                     postage payment transaction, ie                     prior to printing postage.4.3   Usage     To print user                     Reports can be provided by the PC Statistics           reports on                     on usage, viz for any given period           system    by selected services or service,           usage.    the $ value and # of items sent.                     The user should be able to print                     the report in tabular and                     graphical representations. Note:                     the SMD with also record basic                     usage statistics information which                     can be transmitted during an on-                     line postage resetting or                     inspection.4.4   Audit Report           To print a                     It is proposed that at the time Checksum  system usage                     this report is made the current           audit report                     values of the ascending and           with some descending registers are used to           level of  generate a validation code. This           validation.                     code is generated by the SMD, on                     request, and printed at the end of                     the report. The code can be based                     on a function of the above SMD                     registers and the license number.4.5   Service   To print in                     A means shall be devised to put History   service mode                     the SMD into a service mode. This Report    the contents                     could be achieved, for example,           of the    with a dedicated PC software and a           service   service PIN. In this mode the           history fault                     contents of the service history           register. fault register can be printed out.                     The last recorded faults are                     retained even if faults were                     reset; resets are also recorded.                     Fault codes should be printed with                     a description of each fault code                     listed.5     FACTORY/ REPAIR:5.1   Functional           To make a The SMD should contain sufficient Test      system    test software to enable a           functional                     functional test to be made to           test via the                     verify all basic functions, both           SMD       internal and coms, with the PC.           communica-                     Note: a secure internal connection           tion with means is provided to allow the SMD           the PC.   to be initiatized during                     manufacture with direct memory                     read/write access and testing.                     This connection means is not                     accessible once the housing is                     applied without mutilation of the                     housing.______________________________________

              TABLE 2______________________________________GPC/SMD Communications(Including Non-Factory/Repair Functions)                         COMMUNI-                         CATION                         INITIATED                                 SECUREITEM  DESCRIPTION COMMENTS    BY      (YES/NO)______________________________________1     SERVICES1.1   INSTALL     UNLOCK FROM  GPC.sup.1                                 YES             FACTORY1.2   RESET       RESET        GPC.sup.1                                 YES POSTAGE     TRANSACTION1.3   SET RESET   LOCK AFTER  SMD     NO CODE LOCK   16 WRONG             CODES & SEND             MESSAGE1.4   UNLOCK CODE RESET LOCK   GPC.sup.1                                 YES1.5   REMOTE      READ STATUS  GPC.sup.1                                 NO DIAGNOSTICS OF FAULT STATUS      REGISTERED1.6   RESET SOFT  RESET FAULT  GPC.sup.1                                 YES FAULT       FLAG1.7   RECONFIGURE VARIANT      GPC.sup.1                                 YES             CODE (E.G.,             FRACTIONAL             AND INSPEC-             TION PERIOD)1.8   WITHDRAW    SET DESCEND-                          GPC.sup.1                                 YES             ING REGISTER             FLAG TO ZERO2     OPERATIONS2.1   USER ACCESS             GPC     NO PIN2.2   ZERO TEST   GPC         YES IMPRINT2.3   REQUEST     VALUE, CLASS,                         GPC     NO POSTAGE     SERVICE, AND             ZIP TO SMD2.4   ISSUE       INDICIA FILE                         SMD     YES POSTAGE     TO GPC             (ONLY ONCE)2.5   DATE        FUTURE POST GPC     NO ADVANCE     DATE WITH             LIMITATIONS2.6   FAULT       USER        SMD     NO MESSAGE     INFORMATION3     INSPECTION3.1   ADVANCED    USER        SMD     NO INSPECTION  MESSAGE FLAG        FROM TIME WARNING     SET FLAG3.2   INSPECTION  USER        SMD     NO RESET       MESSAGE TO             RESET FLAG3.3   INSPECTION  RESET FLAG   GPC.sup.1                                 YES             IN SMD3.4   NO INSPEC-  USER        SMD     NO TION AFTER  MESSAGE - TIME OUT    SMD BLOCKED (SMD        UNTIL BLOCKED)    INSPECTION             COMPLETE3.5   INSPECTION  USER        SMD     NO FAILURE     MESSAGE             INSPECTION             COMPLETE             (YES OR NO)4     REPORTS4.1   STATUS      SMD (NON-   GPC     NO REPORTS     SECURE READ)             REGISTER             VALUES/             SET-UP4.2   POSTAGE     BEFORE/     GPC     NO RESET       AFTER/TOTALS STATEMENT   INFORMATION4.3   USAGE       SERVICES/   GPC     NO STATISTICS  MONEY             VALUE/             NUMBER4.4   AUDIT REPORT             PERIOD      GPC     YES CHECKSUM    REPORT             CHECKSUM             VALIDATION4.5   SERVICE     REMOTE-     GPC.sup.2                                 YES HISTORY     RESETTABLE REPORT      OR SELF-             RESETTING             FAULTS5     NON- FACTORY/ REPAIR FUNCTIONS VIA SERVICE PORT5.1   INITIALIZE5.2   MEMORY READ/WRITE ACCESS5.3   TEST6     NON- FACTORY/ REPAIR FUNCTIONS VIA GPC PORT6.1   FINAL FACTORY TEST (GPC INITIATED)______________________________________

GPC 20, connected to communications medium 110 via communications interface device 50, accesses CMRS 105 for resetting SMD 10, auditing by postal authorities, and other purposes. This allows the entry of postage credit in a manner similar to conventional electronic postage meters. In the present invention, GPC 20 communicates with resetting station computer 120 to reset SMD 10 (i.e., add postage credit to the values currently contained in SMD 10). Other functions may, of course, be provided in a similar manner.

FIG. 4 is a diagram showing SMD 10 designed according to the present invention. A battery augmented memory (BAM) 810 (and, optionally, a second BAM 820) receive data from and provide data to a memory controller 830. BAM's 810 and 820 may consist, for example, of static RAM memory and batteries for providing non-volatile storage of postage accounting information. This postage accounting information, as is well known in the art, generally includes an ascending register, a descending register and a control total register (none of which are shown in FIG. 4). As is also well-known in the art, an ascending register holds a value equal to the amount of postage used, a descending register holds a value equal to the amount of postage which remains unused and a control total register holds the sum of the ascending and descending registers. Memory controller 830 may be accessed by a control unit 800 or an I/O protection circuit 900. Control unit 800 accesses BAM's 810 and 820 by reading or writing on data lines 840, and controls these operations via control lines 870. I/O protection circuit 900 accesses BAM's 810 and 820 by reading or writing data on data lines 910, and controls these operations via control lines 920. I/O protection circuit 900 also contains a service port 880 and an I/O port 890. Service port 880 allows direct access (with proper access codes) to BAMs 810 and 820, for the repair and maintenance of SMD 10. I/O port 890 supports communications with a general purpose computer (not shown). A printer port 895 is optional and may be connected to a printer (not shown) to allow the printing of postage indicia directly from SMD 10. Such a configuration is shown in FIG. 5. Also shown in FIG. 5 is an SMD containing a network interface, allowing the transmission of encrypted postage indicia files to remote computers over a network. This configuration is discussed later in this section.

Control unit 800 communicates with service port 880, I/O port 890 and printer port 895 via control/data lines 930 and I/O protection circuit 900. Control unit 800 contains circuitry for controlling the functions of SMD 10, and may also contain a real-time clock (not shown) and memory (also not shown). Encryption may be performed by a sub-unit of control unit 800 (not shown; e.g., a hardware encryptor) or by software algorithm (e.g., the well-known RSA algorithm). SMD 10 may contain postage accounting information for a single department (e.g., the entire company is represented by a single account) or may contain postage accounting information for two or more departments within a customer's organization. Moreover, such departments may be widely dispersed geographically given the capabilities of the present invention. As use of the present invention consolidates postage accounting information, multi-site users will benefit from simplified, more efficient tracking of such information. The present invention will also make site-specific postage accounting information available to the user's central accounting facility and to the site accounting facility as well. The reader will note that the internal architecture of SMD 10 in the present invention parallels that of the invention disclosed in U.S. Pat. No. 4,484,307, by Quatse et al., the disclosure of which has already been incorporated herein by reference. Thus, the internal architecture of SMD 10 is well known and will not be described in further detail.

Beyond those already mentioned, many other advantages are provided by the present invention. The software and hardware required to implement the present invention are inexpensive in comparison to conventional postage metering systems, allowing postage metering dedicated to a particular user. Postage may be provided as an on-line service to individual sites of a multi-site user. In comparison to conventional postage meters, use of postage itself is simplified. The individual user or site need not maintain logbooks, lease equipment, comply with any special regulations, physically transport a postage metering device to a post office for inspection nor perform the other custodial tasks related to the use of conventional postage meters.

A second embodiment of the present invention, shown in FIG. 6, operates in a manner similar to that of the above embodiment. Elements depicted in previous figures are referred to in FIG. 6 using the reference numerals assigned in the figure in which the given element originally appears. However, in this case, an SMD 210 is connected to resetting station computer 120 via secure communications link 230. In this configuration, a user needing postage, for example, enters their request using a GPC 20. GPC 20 communicates this request (containing information similar to that in the preceding example) to resetting station computer 120. This communication is accomplished via communications interface device 50, which provides access to communications medium 110 and thereby to communications interface device 130 connected to resetting station computer 120. Resetting station computer 120 relays the request to SMD 210. Multiple SMDs may be connected to resetting station computer 120 and may be organized in any fashion. For example, a customer may have all their postage information retained in a single SMD or multiple SMDs. Further, an SMD may contain postage accounting information for a single department (e.g., the entire company is represented by a single account) or for multiple departments.

SMD 210 responds to the request in the manner previously described, in this case by returning a secure (encrypted) postage indicia file and a license number. This information returns to GPC 20 via the communications path outlined above. GPC, 20 takes the information provided by SMD 210 and constructs a postage indicia print file, as before. The postage indicia print file, together with optional information (such as address information, ZIP-code barcoding and any user-defined information) is communicated to a printer 60 for printing. As noted above, Tables 1 and 2 include listings of other communications which can occur between GPC 20 (and so resetting station computer 120) and SMD 210.

A third embodiment of the present invention, shown in FIG. 7, operates in a manner similar to that of the preceding embodiments. Elements depicted in previous figures are referred to in FIG. 7 using the reference numerals assigned in the figure in which the given element originally appears. However, in this case, a GPC 410 is connected to a local-area network (LAN) 500. Although LAN 500 is shown in a star topology, other computer network topologies and networking techniques may be used. GPC 410 is again connected to an SMD 400 via a secure communications link 420. In this configuration, a user needing postage, for example, enters their request using a GPC 430. GPC 430 may be one of several GPCs attached to LAN 500 (exemplified in FIG. 7 by GPCs 480(1)-(N)). GPC 430 communicates this request (containing information similar to that in the preceding examples) to GPC 410 via LAN 500. GPC 410 relays the request to SMD 400, which responds in the manner outlined in the preceding examples (i.e., SMD 400 generates encrypted postage indicia for transmission by the computer to a digital printer 440, where it is subsequently printed on a mailpiece (exemplified by malpiece 100)). Again, a CMRS 550 may be communicated with using a communications interface device 540, as can a remote ZCIS (not shown). However, a ZCIS computer 150 may reside on LAN 500 to provide ZIP-code information (in the manner previously described) to any computer connected to LAN 500.

In the example, GPC 410 then returns the encrypted postage indicia file generated by SMD 400 to GPC 430, which in turn constructs a postage indicia print file, as before. The postage indicia print file, together with optional information (such as address information, ZIP code barcoding and any user-defined information) is transmitted to printer 440 for printing. Tables 1 and 2 include listings of other communications which can occur. As in the preceding example, more than one SMD may be connected to GPC 410. Moreover, there may be multiple GPCs on the LAN providing postage. Numerous topologies and configurations are thus possible and are to be considered as part of this application. Additionally, SMD 400 may reside remotely at a resetting station computer (not shown) as part of a CMRS 550, as in the second example. Communications from GPC 430 would be transmitted over LAN 500 to GPC 410. GPC 410 sends the information to CMRS 550 via communications link 540. CMRS 550 responds and the information is passed back along the same path to GPC 430. Further, as shown in FIG. 8, an SMD 600 may provide these services directly to GPC 430 via LAN 500, without the need for GPC 410. Elements depicted in previous figures are referred to in FIG. 8 using the reference numerals assigned in the figure in which the given element originally appears.

A secure means of authenticating postage indicia is of great importance to the Unites States Post Office, which loses millions (and potentially billions) of dollars a year to the use of fraudulent postage indicia. In all the preceding embodiments, a printer imprints postage indicium and other information on mailpiece 100. As shown in FIG. 3, postage indicium 195 may include human-readable postage information 197 and encoded postage information 198. These can be used to determine the authenticity of the affixed mark. Encoded postage information 198 is generated in the following manner. Information from SMD 10 (and, optionally, from GPC 20) may be encrypted by SMD 10 using an encryption algorithm (e.g., DES, RSA or a comparable algorithm). The information is then converted into a printable binary code of some sort. Examples of a printable binary code include bar codes, data matrix PDF417 or other comparable method. An example of a data matrix is the data matrix described in the AIM USA Technical Specification entitled "Uniform Symbology Specification" (AIM USA Technology Group, Pittsburgh, Pa; Draft of May 18, 1995), which is hereby incorporated by reference in its entirety. The PDF417 printable binary code is described in "RPS Multicode Bar-Code Label Guide" (RPS Roadway Package System, Draft of May, 1995 (Rev. 2)), which is hereby incorporated by reference in its entirety. The data matrix method is of particular interest because it allows the printing of a relatively large amount of data in a small space. As the present application (postage on envelopes, labels and the like) requires minimal consumption of available area, efficient use of printing area is an advantage.

An authentication system 1000 for the detection of fraudulent postage indicia is shown in FIG. 9. ZIP reader 1100 reads human-readable postage information 197 and symbology reader 1200 reads encoded postage information 198. This information is passed to GPC 1300, where software (not shown) residing on GPC 1300 decodes, then (if required) decrypts encoded postage information 198. The software then compares this decoded information to human-readable postage information 197 and indicates whether or not the postage indicium is authentic. Other information may be provided by the user to aid in the authentication of the postage indicium. Aside from the advantage of small area, this method can also provide two levels of security. First, decoding a data matrix requires special software or at least an understanding of the techniques involved. Second, even if the data matrix is captured and decoded, encryption can be used to prevent viewing of any or all the data. Thus, this system meets the requirement for a secure, accurate means of authenticating postage indicia.

Moreover, while the invention has been particularly shown and described with reference to these specific embodiments, it will be understood by those skilled in the art that the foregoing and other changes in the form and details may be made therein without departing from the spirit or scope of the invention. For example, the present invention should not be limited by any one placement or connection of the SMD in the postage metering system. There may be one or many SMDs, each storing postage information for any number of user sites. Such sites may be local, or remote and widely dispersed geographically. Consequently, the scope of the invention should be determined with reference to the appended claims.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

FIG. 1A is a diagram showing a specific embodiment of the present invention;

FIG. 1B is a diagram showing an example of a secure communications link between a general purpose computer and a secure metering device;

FIG. 2A is a diagram showing an example of a postage indicium produced by the present invention with postage information symbology located inside the postage indicium;

FIG. 2B is a diagram showing an example of a postage indicium produced by the present invention with postage information symbology located outside the postage indicium;

FIG. 2C is a diagram showing an example of a postage indicium produced by the present invention without postage information symbology;

FIG. 3 is a diagram showing an enlarged example of a postage indicium produced by the present invention with postage information symbology located inside the postage indicium;

FIG. 4 is a diagram showing an example of a secure metering device (SMD);

FIG. 5 is a diagram showing an example of an SMD having a network interface and printing capabilities;

FIG. 6 is a diagram showing second specific embodiment of the present invention, wherein the SMD is connected to a resetting station computer;

FIG. 7 is a diagram showing a third specific embodiment of the present invention using a local area network for the communications medium;

FIG. 8 is a diagram showing a fourth specific embodiment of the present invention using a local area network for the communications medium; and

FIG. 9 is a diagram showing an auditing system for preventing the printing of fraudulent postage indicia.

CROSS REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS

The following three commonly-owned copending applications, including this one, are being filed concurrently and the other two are incorporated by reference into this application:

C. Shah and D. T. Gilham, entitled "METHOD AND APPARATUS FOR AUTHENTICATION OF POSTAGE ACCOUNTING REPORTS" U.S. patent application Ser. No. 08/561,662, filed Nov. 22, 1995;

C. Shah and K. Robertson entitled "METHOD AND APPARATUS FOR REDUNDANT POSTAGE ACCOUNTING DATA FILES" U.S. patent application Ser. No. 08/562,143, filed Nov. 22, 1995;

C. Shah and K. Robertson entitled "METHOD AND APPARATUS FOR A MODULAR POSTAGE ACCOUNTING SYSTEM" U.S. patent application No. 08/562,268, filed Nov. 22, 1995.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

The present invention relates generally to a method and apparatus for a modular postage accounting system. More specifically, the present invention allows the printing of postage using any computer having the proper communications and printing capabilities.

Historically, postage meters have been dedicated, stand-alone devices, capable only of printing postage indicia on envelopes (or labels, in the case of parcels). These devices resided at a user site and could provide postage metering for that site alone. Such postage meters required the user to physically transport the device to a post office for resetting (increasing the amount of postage contained in the meter). An advance over this system was the ability to allow users to reset their meters via codes, provided by either the manufacturer or the postal authority once payment by the customer had been made. In contrast, modern electronic meters are often capable of being reset directly by an authorized party, on-site (at the user's location) via a communications link. A system which performs meter resetting in this manner is known as a Computerized Meter Resetting System (or "CMRS"). The party having authority to reset the meter and charge the customer (usually the manufacturer or the postal authority) thus gains access to and resets the meter.

Postage meters are still, unfortunately, restricted to use at a single customer location. As such devices are dedicated (and rather sophisticated in their fail-safes and security), their price tends to be prohibitive for small companies. What is needed is a system which can be connected to existing computer equipment to allow the efficient, economical printing of postage indicia. Such a system would provide postage at a user's location at the user's request.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

According to the present invention, an apparatus and method are described for a modular postage accounting system (MPAS). As will be discussed, many configurations are possible, due to the modularity of the system.

In one embodiment of the present invention, an open system metering device of the present invention consists of a general purpose computer, a digital printer and a secure metering device (SMD). The SMD performs the accounting functions of a postage meter and generates encrypted postage indicia data for transmission by the computer to the digital printer and subsequent printing on a mailpiece. Postage credit data can be entered into the SMD using a CMRS just as it is in a conventional postage meter. This configuration requires the user to maintain a special item of hardware (the SMD) in order to print postage purchased via the CMRS.

In another embodiment, the present invention eliminates that requirement by embedding the SMD functions within the CMRS computer system. A user who has obtained the required license from the postal service can contract with the meter company to interface the user's general purpose computer to the CMRS computer via modem and telephone line. In effect, this provides the postage meter function on a service basis. This has the advantage of simplifying resetting and accounting procedures for the user and eliminates the leasing or housing of any special equipment. Also eliminated is the need to present metering equipment for postal inspection. It also enables one SMD to handle multiple sites in a common account, to accommodate multi-site users that have centralized accounting functions. This last capability has never been possible within the architecture of past or present postage metering systems.

The present invention uses the telephone system to link the user's standard general-purpose computer to a dedicated central-office CMRS computer system. One or more SMD modules may be either attached to or embedded in either the user's computer or the CMRS computer. A single SMD module may an be dedicated to a specific user or it may serve a number of computers. Multiple computers may be placed at one or more sites and multiple sites may be geographically separated. Each SMD module performs all the data storage and accounting functions of a conventional postage meter, and transmits encrypted indicia data for printing. By virtue of the SMD's central location in the system, it automatically consolidates postage accounting data relevant to all the sites it serves. Such data may also be separated so as to report on individual sites. This functionality, too, is unique to the present invention.

The CMRS validates requests from users, and having done so transfers funds from the user's bank account to the postal service's receiving account. The CMRS then either resets the user's postage metering device with the prepaid amount directly, or issues a one-time code to let the user accomplish the reset using the computer's keyboard. In the present invention, this resetting process can be done within a few seconds (in real-time), allowing for near-continuous processing of mail by the user. The CMRS is in constant communication with each SMD, and validation of a reset order can be reduced to a single keystroke, if desired. Once validated by the user, the remainder of the transaction is done by the CMRS/SMD system without further operator intervention.

The present invention allows a multi-site user's individual sites to process mail continuously, with payment to the post office and replenishment of credit handled through central accounting facilities. As long as the user's central accounting facility maintains adequate fund reserves, the individual sites have access to an on-line service which provides postage on an as-needed basis. The need for individual cash accounts to prepay on-site postage meters is thus eliminated, realizing an improvement in corporate cash-flow and better control of the user's funds.

A further understanding of the nature and advantages of the present invention may be realized by reference to the remaining portions of the specification and the drawings.

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Classifications
U.S. Classification705/410
International ClassificationG07B17/00
Cooperative ClassificationG07B17/00661, G07B2017/00137, G07B2017/00967, G07B2017/00725, G07B17/00193, G07B2017/00241, G07B17/0008, G07B17/00508, G07B2017/00201, G07B2017/00096, G06Q20/102, G07B2017/0058
European ClassificationG06Q20/102, G07B17/00D2, G07B17/00F3, G07B17/00F2, G07B17/00E1
Legal Events
DateCodeEventDescription
9 Apr 2010FPAYFee payment
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6 Apr 2006FPAYFee payment
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8 Sep 1998ASAssignment
Owner name: NEOPOST INC., CALIFORNIA
Free format text: CHANGE OF NAME;ASSIGNOR:F.M.E. CORPORATION;REEL/FRAME:009463/0904
Effective date: 19980715
26 Feb 1996ASAssignment
Owner name: F.M.E. CORPORATION, CALIFORNIA
Free format text: ASSIGNMENT OF ASSIGNORS INTEREST;ASSIGNORS:SHAH, CHANDRAKANT J.;ROBERTSON, KEITH B.;REEL/FRAME:007979/0177
Effective date: 19960122